Organic Food Claims Challenged

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For a growing swath of health- and eco-conscious consumers, foods and beverages can bear no greater attribute than being “organic.” But in fact, two studies suggest, aficionados of organics may be giving these products more credit than they deserve.

Many organic-food consumers mistakenly believe that organic snacks have significantly fewer calories than they really do, according to two new studies. And according to another new piece of research, there’s little basis for believing that organic food products are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterpart.

Organic foods, of course, have grown tremendously over the last quarter-century and truly went mainstream when the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a standardization and labeling system in 2002 that identified how much content in organic foods and beverages comes from organically grown ingredients.

But along with the growth of organic sales, apparently some fallacies have taken hold as well.[more]

New research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab indicates that people who ate organic cookies labeled as “organic” believed that their snack contained 40 percent fewer calories than the same cookies that had no brand label. Moreover, people who claim to buy a lot of organic foods were among those in the study most likely to overestimate their caloric savings.

“An organic label gives a food a health halo,” said co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab and a leading expert in the psychology of eating. “It’s the same basic reason people tend to overeat any snack food that’s labeled as healthy or low-fat. They underestimate the calories and over-reward themselves by eating more.”

The finding is interesting in light of the latest research by a Rutgers University emeritus professor, who concluded that research fails to support claims that organic food products are nutritionally superior to conventional products.

The new study by food toxicology expert Joseph Rosen expands on his earlier assertion that the notion that products with organic origins are nutritionally better than their conventionally derived counterparts was based in large part on research results that weren’t statistically significant or peer-reviewed.

The caveats for consumers from these studies are clear: Understand the real benefits of organic products, because you may be paying the high prices they command for reasons that are illusory.

And for food and beverage companies, this research should point out new opportunities to define the true benefits of organic brands. Come clean with consumers, and they’ll likely reward you.

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